‘World triumph in three games. The achievement of Racing, which will never be repeated in similar circumstances, will stay in history as a unique and unforgettable feat. World Club Champions!’
(El Grafico, Argentinian sports paper, special edition -1967)
Campeon del Mundo – Champions of the World. The Argentinian media gleefully celebrated the victory of Racing Club over Celtic in the 1967 Inter-Continental Cup Final, a competition in which the European champions played off against the champions of South America for the world crown. It was the first time in the tournament’s eight-year history that an Argentinian team had triumphed and media, pundits and politicians alike in Buenos Aires rushed to heap praise on the team from the capital’s port district of Avellaneda. It was the country’s greatest football success to date. Yet one national newspaper, Clarin, expressed unease at the way that Racing had won the title: ‘Racing took the illicit road to victory. They brought back the cup, but that was all.’
From Blantyre to Buenos Aires: John Fallon makes front page news
Argentinian football did not enjoy a positive reputation in Europe at the time. At the previous year’s World Cup, England manager Alf Ramsay had branded the Argentinian national team ‘Animals’ following a violent quarter-final encounter – and he refused to allow his players to swap jerseys at the game’s end. The tactics deployed by Racing over the course of the three games against Celtic (with a deciding tie being held in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo) generated tremendous controversy at the time.
The tone was set in the first game at Hampden before an attendance of 83,437. Spitting, flailing elbows, hair pulls, play-acting, studs being dragged down the back of opponents’ legs and outrageous tackles largely formed Racing’s armoury. A double-challenge on Jimmy Johnstone (the second came in as he was already grounded from the first tackle) still causes the viewer to wince today.
In Buenos Aires, in front of a mammoth 115,000 spectators, Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was struck with a missile on the head before the game had even started and had to be replaced. Racing engaged in the same intimidatory tactics as the first game and a number of Celtic players left the pitch carrying injuries after a 2-1 defeat. (Jimmy Johnstone had to take a shower at half time to wash all the spit from his hair that his markers had kindly donated). There were serious misgivings among Celtic directors about the wisdom of taking part in a play-off game to decide a winner. Chairman Robert Kelly wanted the team to return home but he was over-ruled. Everyone associated with Celtic was to rue that decision: the deciding tie is widely referred to as ‘The Battle of Montevideo.’
In the play-off tie the Celtic players had clearly had enough of their Argentinian opponents and decided to take their revenge. Jock Stein, although outraged at the outcome, had some sympathy for his team: ‘Even the Archangel Gabriel would have retaliated.’ The upshot was four red cards for Celtic (although Bertie Auld ignored the referee’s dismissal and played on!) and two for Racing. One Uruguayan newspaper headline read: ‘A WAR IN MONTEVIDEO: NO WINNERS, ONLY SURVIVORS!’
The Scottish view of Celtic v Racing
Celtic’s hard-earned reputation for sporting play was in tatters – and the title of World Champions was lost. Racing won in Montevideo by a single goal (a wonder strike from Juan Carolos Cardenas which gave substitute goalie John Fallon no chance). Every member of the Celtic team was subsequently fined by the club for their misconduct. Five decades on, surviving Celtic players remain embittered about their trip to South America and Racing’s tactics:
‘They were more than sleekit. It was just badness. Sheer evil. Argentina were robust at Wembley the year before, but that was nothing compared to Racing Club. They would have been happier to play without a ball.’ – Bertie Auld
106 Celtic fans took a chartered flight to Argentina for the 14,000-mile round journey at a cost of £200 each (almost £3,500 in today’s money). They – and the thousands of supporters back home who had to make do with delayed TV and newspaper reports to find out the score – felt cheated. All sorts of oaths and curses were uttered in anger at Racing Club, known throughout Argentina as La Academia (The Academy). Yet there was one curse in particular which was to prove enduring and damaging in equal measure . . .
The port of Avellaneda, with a population of over 320,000, is home to two of Argentinian football’s Cinco Grandes (the Big Five) football clubs. While the classico derby between Racing and Independiente is not as well-known as that of Boca Juniors and River Plate, it is generally considered to be more intense, atmospheric and violent. One of the reasons for this is the closeness of their two grounds – Racing’s El Cilindro (‘The Cylinder’ or Estadio Presidente Peron to give it its official name) lies only two hundred metres from Independiente’s Libertadores de America.
It is believed that, in world football, only Dundee has two senior professional clubs in closer proximity to each other. It’s fair to say that Dens Park and Tannadice have nothing on these two temples of football.
The rivalry between the two Avellaneda teams has been keen since 1915 when a 2-1 win for Independiente was over-turned by football authorities – a decision which handed Racing the League title. Tensions between the clubs reached fever pitch in the 1960s as each achieved greater success. In 1964, Independiente became the first Argentinian side to win the much coveted ‘Copa Libertadores’ – the club champions of South America – and then won it again the following year for good measure. When Racing won the Argentinian league in 1966 they went on to beat Nacional of Uruguay in the Copa Libertadores final, paving the way for the Intercontinental Cup Final against Celtic. The play-off victory in Montevideo meant Racing had gone one better than Independiente: not just the best team in Argentina or South America but the best in the world.
It was too much for one of ground of Independiente fans. With the connivance of a Racing groundsman, they entered El Cilindro on the night of their rival’s greatest triumph – and proceeded to bury seven dead black cats under one of the goalmouths on Racing’s pitch. (Black cats are considered bearers of bad luck in South America). Their aim was to bring a curse on Racing and deny them any future success. As fans of La Academia celebrated in Montevideo and the streets of Avellaneda, the ‘Curse of El Cilindro’ (or the Seven Cats) was born.
Racing fans scoffed at the suggestion of a curse based on dead cats being put on them by their envious rivals. Initially. Prior to 1967, Racing had won Argentina’s top league on 15 occasions while Independiente had only 7 titles to boast of. On the last day of the 1967 season, Independiente beat Racing 4-0 at home to claim an eighth title. Perhaps there was something in the talk of a curse after all?
The following season, Racing lost a three-way play-off for the title. A year later they sacked coach Juan Jose Pizzuti, who had guided them to victory over Celtic, and in 1970 went through four different coaches in one season. Things were not going well in El Cilindro. In 1972 Racing came second in the League but this resurgence was short-lived – in 1975 they suffered a momentous 10-0 defeat to Rosario Central and in 1976 they finished second bottom of the league, just avoiding relegation. The decade after Montevideo had been a cruel one for Celtic’s victors with no silverware secured.
When Juan Carlos ‘Toto’ Lorenzo, was appointed Racing coach in 1980 he decided to tackle the curse head on. He persuaded the club to try and lift the curse by finding and removing the remains of the dead cats. This meant that the pitch had to be dug up. When it was, six cat skeletons were found. The legend had always suggested seven cats had been buried but only six skeletons were discovered. To end the hex, Toto then instructed that six dead toads be buried where each of the cat skeletons had been. (It is doubted that there is an Argentinian equivalent to the RSPCA). His orders were followed, the toads laid to rest and the pitch re-laid.
Could half-a-dozen toads bring an end to the bad luck that the felines had apparently caused Racing? In the last game of the season in 1983, Racing made the short journey to the Libertadores and their great rivals knowing that defeat would mean relegation – for the first time in the club’s history. To make matters worse, a victory for Independiente would hand them the championship. The Racing fans watched on in agony as a 2-0 win for the home team again proved, in the eyes of many, that La Academia were truly cursed. It would be two long, drawn-out seasons before they returned to the top division – much to the amusement of Independiente supporters.
The 1990s were to prove even more painful for Racing and their fans. In 1997, the 30th anniversary of Celtic’s vanquishing also meant that three decades had now passed and not a single League flag had flown over El Cilindro in the intervening years. By contrast, Celtic had won 29 trophies since that defeat in Montevideo. Racing had fallen badly, from one of Argentina’s most successful clubs to perpetual also-rans (although the commitment and passion of their support remained as strong as ever, as reflected in continuing high attendances). What made matters worse for them was the fact that, from 1968 onwards, Argentina’s football season consisted of two separate League championships: the Metropolitano and the Nacional. This meant that Racing had missed out on two League titles each season since their win in 1966 – remarkable under-performance for a club of their size and standing.
Happier times in El Cilindro
Thoughts turned again to The Curse. That seventh dead cat had never been recovered, people recalled. Was the damned curse still intact? What of the toads – why hadn’t they reversed Racing’s fortunes? It was time to call in the big guns and, in South America, they don’t come much bigger than the Catholic Church.
On the evening of 4th February 1998 massive crowds gathered outside the majestic Santa Iglesia Cathedral in Avellaneda for a torchlight procession to El Cilindro. Some estimates suggest that more than 100,000 followed the procession, led by Father Horatio Della Barca and 500 torches. On arrival at Racing’s ground the priest said Mass and sprinkled holy water on both goalmouths. The mass was followed by a concert by the band Vox Dei (presumably an off-shoot of Opus Dei) and a friendly match between Racing and Colón de Santa Fe. A banner hung in the ground read: “God is a Racing fan. The devil is not.” Time would tell whether that bold proclamation was true or not.
The huge procession from Santa Iglesia Cathedral to Racing’s stadium
Racing’s president, Daniel Lalín, played down suggestions that an exorcism had been performed to rid the club of its curse: “This is not an exorcism but an act of faith. The same faith displayed by the fans who stoically go to the stadium every Sunday. We are uniting Roman Catholicism with Racingism.” That faith was quickly put to the test in a way not previously considered imaginable in Argentinian football.
The goalmouths get the holy water treatment
Racing had been dogged by financial problems for a number of years yet their fans were still stunned when, in July 1998, the club started a bankruptcy process. Multi-million dollar debts had been run up and, as the country itself was in dire financial straits, there were no government handouts available as there had been in the past to the big clubs. Legal proceedings rumbled on for months until, on 4th March 1999, Racing were formally declared bankrupt, prompting the court-appointed accountant to issue a statement with the words ‘Racing Club has ceased to exist.’ The new league was due to start that Sunday however Racing were formally suspended and the game against Talleres de Córdoba was cancelled. The Racing fans were having none of that: over 30,000 Racing fans turned up at the ground regardless, hung out their banners and sang in protest at the club’s imminent demise for a full ninety minutes. No teams appeared. The Curse of the Seven Cats was turning into the worst nightmare imaginable.
Racing’s fans did not give up though. The 4th of March was to prove an opening salvo in their war to stave off liquidation and preserve the club’s history. They fought legal battles, protested outside Parliament and government buildings and even occupied Racing’s headquarters to prevent administrators from taking physical control of the club’s property, bringing them into direct confrontation with the police. (In one unpleasant public encounter, Racing President Lalín received a nasty cut to the head when the club’s ultras threw one of their large drums at him while speaking to the media.)
Ultimately, in a way that should have proven an invaluable lesson to other historic rivals of Celtic, the fans succeeded in halting the club’s liquidation and demise. An appeal court ordered that Racing continue but would be run by a private corporation for a period of 10 years to pay off the club’s debts. It was far from an ideal situation but, crucially, Racing still existed – thanks to its fans. The curse had not killed the club.
It was now a new millennium. The frustrations of Racings fans at the ongoing trophy drought were summed up well by Cardenas, the man who scored the sumptuous winner in Montevideo: ‘It took so many years to win something again, that people started to tell me that if all Racing fans kept watching my goal, there was a risk that the shot would finally hit the post.’
Sacred Heart of Racing: Father Juan Gabriel Arias, a Buenos Aires priest, shows his true colours. No red, the Independiente colour, is allowed anywhere in his church.
Reinaldo Merlo, known throughout Argentina by his nickname of ‘Mostaza’ (Mustard) due to his distinctive hair-colouring, did not carry much in the way of expectation when he was appointed Coach of cash-strapped Racing in late 2000. Merlo was famed as much for his superstitions as his coaching ability. Whenever opponents launched an attack on his team’s goal, he would make a hand gesture to bring his team luck and ward off the opposition (presumably not the hand gesture made infamous by Barry Ferguson and Alan McGregor!). He considered flowers to be especially unlucky and associated them with death. Naturally, opposition fans would shower him with flowers at every opportunity.
The new coach knew all about Racing’s curse. He believed that the club was never likely to win the league again unless the seventh cat could be found and removed. He persuaded the board to start a new search which would go further than before: as well as excavating the pitch it was decided to dig up the concrete moat which surrounded it also. This was to prove a masterstroke – a cat skeleton, believed to be the seventh cat buried 34 years earlier, was discovered among the rubble of the moat and finally removed from El Cilindro. Surely now this meant the end of the curse . . .
Racing fans proclaim: ‘My old lady gave me life, bur Racing gave me heart!’
Although Merlo was credited for ridding Racing of the last cat, the reality was he’d inherited a team that had finished 6th in the Apertura (Opening) championship and 18th in the Clausura (Closing) championship of the previous season. Hopes of a League challenge were not high. After some good early results though, Merlo advocated a cautious ‘paso a paso’ (step by step) approach to fans and reporters alike as Racing kept check with the league leaders. Expectations rose. Racing were not playing with flair – their top scorer only hit the net seven times that campaign – but they were increasingly playing without fear and were clear at the top of the league. A magnificent strike from Gerardo Bedoya kept closest rivals River Plate at bay in El Cilindro (the fireworks display during the game’s final stages is a thing to behold!). It would all come down to the final game of the campaign, away to Velez Sarsfield: a win would secure Racing’s first League title in 35 years. Then, as the final hurdle approached, the curse came in to play again.
Argentina was in turmoil– a financial crisis led to the government freezing the bank accounts of citizens for 12 months and limiting the amount of withdrawals. This sparked wide-scale protests and then riots resulting in a state of emergency being declared. Top league football was suspended. There was talk of the league being held up for months – or abandoned altogether, to help keep people off the streets. Racing and other clubs protested and, after a week’s delay, it was announced that the final round of games would be played between Christmas and New Year on 27th December.
River Plate ran out 6-1 winners at home. The title would belong to them if Racing lost at Velez. A 1-1 draw was enough to spark scenes of unbridled jubilation at both the Jose Emiliano Stadium and also twelve miles across the city at El Cililndro, where over 40,000 Racing fans had gathered to watch the game on a giant screen.
Merlo greets the jubilating fans away at Velez as the title is won – at last
It had taken more than three decades, but the curse was at last defeated.
As they celebrated these Racing fans held up a banner which said: ‘What ghosts? No ghosts. Merlo already said: Racing are Champions!‘ The ghost cats of 1967 had now been exorcised, at long last.
Since then, Racing have won the league title only once more, in 2014. This year (2017) is the Golden Anniversary of their defeat of Celtic and coronation as World Club Champions. It remains Racing’s greatest achievement. Yet, two Argentinian championships in the intervening fifty years is a poor return for this once-great club and is over-shadowed by the twenty-six League titles Celtic have secured in the same period.
Celtic fans might be forgiven for thinking that a little divine intervention has helped shape the fortunes of both clubs since the smoke cleared at football’s infamous Battle of Montevideo.
Merlo the Magician – Racing Club had a statue built to honour the coach who brought an end to their curse
Celtic’s tussles with Racing in the World Club Championship are remembered with good humour in this song which can be heard in the North Curve at Celtic Park and various supporter buses:
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